17 August 2010

Finding the way to full rehabilitation

Somsak Chuchuykhom shows colorful drawings made by young offenders which depict hopes and plans of their futures.
© UNICEF Thailand/2010/Athit Perawongmetha

Story by Nattha Keenapan

(The story was published in the Bangkok Post on August 16, 2010)

SONGKHLA, Thailand – Abject poverty and domestic violence were daily realities for Somsak Chuchuykhom as he was growing up in the border province of Narhatiwat. Regarded as his family’s “bad and stupid” son, he was put to work at the age of 7 selling candy on the train at night.

From the start, the odds of Somsak making something out of his life were never very good. A poor student, and growing up in an abusive environment, Somsak started smoking marijuana at 13, and soon after moved on to methamphetamines. At 18, he was serving two years in a detention centre for the possession and sale of methamphetamines, and his future prospects looked grim.
But in 2004, three years after he had been released from detention, Somsak received one of Thailand’s National Outstanding Youth Awards, and in 2007 he earned an undergraduate degree in mass communication.  Today, Somsak is a role model for many young offenders in southern Thailand and living proof that they can also rise above the mistakes of their youth.

Tears well up in the eyes of Somsak, now 27, when he recalls the sad and bitter years of his childhood.  Somsak said that when he was released from detention, he realized that his future did not have to be a repeat of his past. Since then he has been working to bring positive changes to the lives of young offenders, many of whom had childhood experiences like his own.

 Somsak, who received the National Outstanding Youth Award for promoting improved understanding of juvenile offenders among the public through various theatrical activities and a community radio station he established, said it was play at the Songkhla Juvenile Training Centre in 1999 that changed his life forever. He played several roles in the drama, which was entitled “A Box of Dreams” and based on the real life experiences of young offenders at the centre. 

“It forced me to think about my life,” said Somsak, who is now the manager of the Bridge of Life Project at Songkhla Forum, a non-government organization working with juvenile offenders in the south.

“I asked myself why things happened the way they did, and what kind of ending I wanted for my life,” Somsak said. “It was something that I had never thought of before, and it helped me realize that you can learn to manage your emotions.”

The theatrical activities were later developed into a media education course, which is now taught under the Bridge of Life Project at Songkhla Juvenile Training Centre. The project, which has been carried out for the past three years with support from UNICEF Thailand, is aimed at building the analytical, self awareness, emotional and relationship management skills that young offenders need to rehabilitate themselves and to reintegrate themselves into their communities.

In Thailand, where the age of criminal responsibility is just 10, approximately 44,000 criminal offence cases involving children and youth in 2009. Most were 15-18 years olds who had been charged with crimes such as robbery, theft and possession and sale of drugs.

At the six-rai Songkhla Juvenile Training Centre, the young offenders are surrounded by high walls and live under tight security. Their daily routine includes primary- and secondary-level education classes and such vocational courses as music, hair styling, construction and wood work. Quarrels and fighting are not uncommon at the centre, which houses some 300 male youngsters ranging in age from 14-24 from several southern provinces.

Under the UNICEF project, thirty-one young offenders recently completed a six-month media education course in addition to their other studies. The media education course involved discussions on the content of news reports, documentaries, movies and advertisements, and the impact media has on their lives. Towards the end of the course, the students learned how to write stories, use a video camera and make short films that portray both their current and past lives.

“Media has a major influence on children, so it is a great tool to help them learn” said Pannipa Sotthibandhu, Director of the Songkhla Forum. “Logical thinking and emotional management are the key learnings that children take away from the course.”

A life skills test administered to the young offenders before and after the course showed a marked improvement in their analytical skills, as well as improved self awareness and management of emotions and relations.

“Life skills are what these children did not get from the formal education system, although it seems to be what they need the most,” said Kannika Phuksorn, a social worker at the centre. “Along with the new learning process, the children also find courage and develop confidence in themselves.”

Not long before their release from detention, the 31 young offenders in the course spent three days outside the training centre at a workshop with other members of their families, drawing up life plans for their future. The workshop had numerous emotional moments, with many of the families speaking to each other openly and sharing hugs for the first time in years.  In colorful drawings depicting their futures, the young offenders expressed their intentions to be good sons, find decent jobs and to never again become involved in criminal activities.

Nevertheless, once they leave the training centre, they will face many challenges. Although they have their freedom back, most will still be living in environments where poverty, violence and drug use, both within their families and communities, is common.

Life after release

In Songkhla’s Sabayoi district, an area hard hit by violence, a sign reading “This house is free from drugs” is attached to the front door at the house of Mamuh*, a 21-year-old who was released from the training centre in February. Mamuh, who was convicted of the possession and sale of drugs a few years ago, spent 30 months in the centre, and is now back home living with his mother and grandmother .

After being released from Songkhla Juvenile Training Center, Mamuh (not his real name) makes a good living by raising ducks in his backyard
and selling their eggs to support his family.© UNICEF Thailand/2010/Athit Perawongmetha
  Just outside their one-story, corrugated iron house, sits the remains of a small, unfinished wooden building that was intended to serve as a tea shop – a small business that Mamuh wanted to start to help support his family.  

But his plans for the tea shop were never realized because his neighbors and other members of the community members did not agree with his plan.
“The neighbors did not want someone who used and sold drugs to open a tea shop in the community,” said Mamuh, a shy and quiet young man who lost his father when he was five years old. “They kept complaining to me and my mother, which was disappointing and really hurt me.  It got to the point where I was planning on going elsewhere to try to find work.”

Throughout these difficult months, Somsak and his team regularly visited Mamuh to provide both moral support and advice. They worked with his family and relatives to find another source of income, and at the same time talked with his neighbors and other community members to promote improved understanding and acceptance of Mamuh and his efforts to earn an honest living.  Mamuh finally decided to raise ducks in his backyard with help from soldiers who are stationed nearby.

“I’m glad I didn’t leave home,” said Mamuh, who has been so successful in selling his duck eggs in the community that he recently started raising catfish in a pond near the small duck farm. “I have learned to be more patient, and to also think about what the consequences will be before taking any action.”

According to his mother, their living conditions have improved dramatically now that Mamuh, who in his earlier years spent most of his time hanging out with friends, has become the family’s breadwinner. Mamuh’s mother, who used to earn just 100 baht a day labouring in a rubber plantation, said she is now able to stay at home to take care of the family.

Every other month, Bridge of Life project staff make home visits to Mamuh and other former offenders who have been released to assess their situation and provide support. A multi-sectoral team made up of social workers, lawyers, psychologists and probation officers also meet regularly to come up with solutions for each individual’s problems. In addition, a 24-hour hotline has been set up to provide them emergency assistance, while interest-free loans are available for former offenders and their families to start small businesses.

The support and assistance to the former offenders continues through the first year of their release.  The programme is the first of its kind in Thailand, where the number of children in conflict with the law has increased rapidly over the past decade. The number of juvenile offence cases rose from 37,388 cases in 1999 to 44,847 cases in 2009, according to the Department of Juvenile Observation and Protection.

“Systematic support after release is extremely important for children and families,” said Amanda Bissex, Chief of Child Protection for UNICEF Thailand. “Although the life skills they learn in the detention centre are necessary, they may not be enough to help them cope with the realities they face in their communities after they are released.” 

In addition to professional support, the most important thing needed to help children reintegrate into society and refrain from recommitting crimes is the love, care and understanding of their families, Bissex added.

Efforts are made to help build bonds between the newly-released offenders and their families, with the parents and their children participating in various activities, such as the three-day workshop in which the offenders draw up plans for the future. The parents of young offenders also meet to discuss problems and experiences, and as a result are better able to cope with and take care of their children. The Songkhla Forum Office has become a second home for some many of the newly released offenders, a place where they can count on finding understanding and acceptance.

Expanding life skills education programmes and providing sustained support to young offenders after their release is possible as long as the government is committed and makes available the human and financial resources required, Bissex said.

“It is necessary for both the government and the society to help former offenders lead a safe and productive life,” Bissex said. “These children are also the future of this country, and they need and deserve the support, care and love that every other child receives.”

*not his real name.

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